2017 Heart of Dallas Bowl, Quick Lane Bowl and Cactus Bowl Preview

December 25, 2017

Hopefully everyone had an enjoyable, safe and relaxing Christmas holiday.

Boxing Day brings with it a slew of college football matchups, which will begin to separate those playing Bowl Mania. With 15 bowl games already in the books, there are typically fewer places to hide, with several players already having burned the majority of their low confidence point games.

My buddy Colin still leads the group by a fairly wide margin, but there are a lot of games left.

Let’s take a look at the three that will be played on December 26.

Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl

Utah vs. West Virginia (Tuesday, 1:30 PM ET – ESPN)

This is the first bowl game this season between two Power 5 schools, which is typically an indication that the postseason is in full swing. Neither of these teams finished the regular season particularly well, with West Virginia dropping its last two games and Utah dropping two of its last three. However, with the exception of West Virginia’s loss to Texas, all of them were to ranked opponents. The Utes are 10-1 in bowl games under Kyle Whittingham, last losing in the postseason in 2010 to Boise State. If there’s one team that you can be reasonably confident will play like it’s capable of in bowl season, it would be Utah.

West Virginia’s offense was dangerous during the regular season, but with Wil Grier questionable for the game after undergoing surgery for a broken middle finger on his throwing hand, its effectiveness could be in doubt. The Mountaineers may be relying on sophomore quarterback Chris Chugunov, who played decently well in his two starts at the end of the season but is still green, having thrown just 62 passes the entire year. Utah’s defense is stout, allowing just over 350 yards total per game and fewer than 140 yards through the air. With leading running back Justin Crawford skipping the bowl, the Mountaineers will need to rely heavily on the passing game in this one. I’m confident Whittingham’s squad will be able to shut down Chugunov and would survive Grier if he plays, so I have the Utes for 28 points in Bowl Mania.

My Pick: 31-17 Utah

Quick Lane Bowl

Duke vs. Northern Illinois (Tuesday, 5:15 PM ET – ESPN)

The Blue Devils will travel up to Detroit to take on Northern Illinois in a stadium that Rod Carey’s program is very comfortable playing in (the Huskies have played in six MAC title games at Ford Field since 2010). While this could be viewed as an advantage for the Huskies, the MAC as a conference has played pretty poorly this bowl season, posting a 1-3 record thus far. Typically, Northern Illinois is characterized by a high-powered offense, but this year the Huskies were near the bottom of the MAC in total offense. However, the team did still average 30.2 points per contest.

This game will most likely be dictated by the defenses. Duke’s defense ranks third in the ACC averaging just 335 yards per contest, while Northern Illinois has the MAC’s best defense in terms of yards allowed with just 328 per game. The Huskies are also extremely adept at getting to the quarterback, ranking fifth in the nation with 41 sacks on the year. If Duke is unable to find a way to keep defensive end Sutton Smith & Co. away from quarterback Daniel Jones, it could be a long and frustrating game for the Blue Devils offense. However, at this point I’m unwilling to wager anything on a MAC school after watching Akron and Toledo, the two teams that played in the conference’s championship game, get pummeled by non-Power 5 opponents. I have the Blue Devils for 14 points in Bowl Mania, but if you like defensive battles then this should be an exciting one.

My Pick: 20-19 Duke

Cactus Bowl

Kansas State vs. UCLA (Tuesday, 9 PM ET – ESPN)

The Wildcats will take on UCLA in the Arizona desert, but this isn’t the same Bruins squad that took the field during the regular season. The high-powered UCLA offense, whose average breakdown between the pass and run game was an astounding 75/25 split, will be without quarterback Josh Rosen, who is in concussion protocol and will sit out this bowl game. It would have been an interesting battle between Bill Synder’s tough-minded but porous defense, which is next to last in the country against the pass (310.3 yards allowed per game), and one of the top college quarterbacks in the country.

Instead, we’ll be left to watch how interim head coach Jedd Fisch leads a Bruins squad without its best offensive playmaker that has yet to win away from the Rose Bowl this season. Fisch was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach under former head man Jim Mora, and considering that several coaches under Fisch will be retained once Chip Kelly takes over the program, it seems as if the interim job will be a good chance for him to prove his worth. The odds may be stacked against him with the absence of Rosen, but bowl season is already the time for coaches to get creative and Fisch will need to be particularly creative to win this game. Expect a back and forth affair in this one that could get crazy near the end. I have the Wildcats for 18 points because Coach Snyder is fun to root for, but this one could conceivably go either way.

My Pick: 34-30 Kansas State

If you have interest in offering your insight for any of the bowl games this season, shoot me an email at kbecks@aroundthecorn.com or reach out on one of ATC’s social media sites (Facebook, Twitter). I’d be happy to accommodate.

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